Dave Swift has established himself as one of the UK’s finest, high-profile bass players. In his career, which expands beyond three decades, Dave boasts a musician’s portfolio that seconds no other. Dave Swift has played for an array of renowned artists, from George Benson and Chaka Khan to Eric Clapton and Paul Simon.
When did you start playing bass and why did you choose the bass?
I started to play bass guitar when I was 15 in 1979 and double bass a few months later. Actually, I really think the bass chose me!
I was already studying trombone at school and some euphonium & tuba too, so I was most definitely a brass player to begin with.
A number of us in the school wind band decided to form our own band as we wanted to play music which was a bit “cooler” . We had drums, piano and a large, varied horn section with two trombonists including myself, but no one played or owned a bass!
My two older brothers played guitar and I would strum these at home for fun, although I wasn’t drawn to the guitar enough to want to learn to play it properly.
However, due to the fact I’d even held a guitar, I thought I’d be the one most suited to play a stringed instrument in the new band we’d formed.
I then volunteered to play bass even though I knew nothing about the instrument whatsoever!
My eldest brother took me to a music shop in Wolverhampton town centre and helped me choose my first ever bass guitar which was a Kay Fender Precision copy.
What memories do you have from when you first started playing? Did you have tuition or were you self-taught?
I could already read music to a high standard from my trombone studies with my peripatetic brass teacher, and so this was very useful when I started playing bass as most of the music my friends and I were playing involved commercially written out charts (Jazz, Pop, Soul & Funk arrangements)
We weren’t learning songs by ear or improvising at that point. Everything was written down, including the bass parts. All I then had to do was quickly familiarize myself with the bass guitar itself.
There was no bass teacher at my school of any description and seemingly very few, if any bass teachers anywhere! I quickly realized my best and only option was to teach myself.
I discovered several books including one called ‘ELECTRIC BASS TECHNIQUE’ volume I by Valda Hammick, and the other being ‘HOW TO PLAY THE ELECTRIC BASS’ written by Carol Kaye.
These were a huge help to me in those initial stages, even if I was predominantly using a pick as both books suggested. I was on my way!
Then an interesting thing occurred. My trombone teacher who was also a fixer, booking musicians for gigs, shows, sessions etc.. had also been keeping a keen eye on my progress on bass guitar.
He suggested to me that if I also learned to play double bass, that if I decided to pursue a career in music, that “doubling” on bass guitar & double bass would be hugely beneficial and potentially very lucrative, as many players at that time only played one or the other.
It was the best advice I’ve ever received!
Shortly afterwards my parents bought me my first double bass, and again, due to the lack of double bass teachers in my areas, I started looking for method books.
Two key books which were recommended to me were ‘NEW METHOD FOR THE DOUBLE BASS’ by F. Simandl, which is often referred to as the “double bass bible” by many, and Ray Brown’s ‘BASS METHOD’.
I already knew who Ray Brown was from listening to and admiring him on Jazz recordings, so I felt I was in good hands!
I was already a “classically trained” trombonist, so I wasn’t really looking to do the same on double bass, I just wanted to play Jazz and popular music.
I then had one, possibly two private lessons with a double bass playing vicar, who when I asked him about wanting to play Jazz, said to me “listen to lots of Frank Sinatra records, then try and play along with them” and that was it!
I’d already played the trombone in many varied musical settings including big bands, dance bands, orchestras, brass, wind & concert bands, in funk, Rock, Soul and R&B horn sections you name it!
This was incredible training and experience to then apply to bass guitar and double bass
How was your first tour? What memories do you have from it?
Some of my early work involved playing on cruise liners including the QE2 when I was 20.
That was my first ship which I was on for ten weeks in 1984. We mostly traveled from Southampton to New York and back & forth. It was my first time in America and New York and it was an incredible, eye opening and mind expanding experience.
I loved arriving in New York and visiting all the music shops, checking out instruments, records, books, especially ones which weren’t available back home in England.
I remember going into Manny’s Music instrument store on West 48th St in midtown Manhattan, and buying my first “Fake Book” which was the precursor to the “The Real Book”. The Fake Book was actually illegal at the time and so the shop had to put them in brown paper bags and literally sell them “under the counter”
I also remember walking back to the ship with my arms full of rare and hard to find Jazz records, even though I didn’t actually have a record player onboard.
The crossing from Southampton to New York was five days and could get pretty boring, so I made good use of my time learning Jazz standards which I’d had little experience of previously, and doing lots of practise and bass line transcriptions. I remember some of my early transcriptions I did in my cabin were Jaco’s lines to “The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines” and “Black Market”.
I actually met Dave Prowse on the QE2 who played Darth Vader as he was on there doing some talks about his life. That was very cool! The worst thing about the QE2 was the transatlantic crossing was always very rough and a lot of folks got sea sick, myself included!
I had to have anti sickness injections which definitely helped!
On another cruise ship, the vessel was taken over by a Jazz cruise, so the band I was in got lots of time off to watch the visiting bands and musicians.
We had George Shearing playing with Canadian virtuoso bassist Don Thompson, and also Ramsey Lewis (who’s bassist was a young Bill Dickens- later known as Bill “The Buddha” Dickens) also, Carmen McRae, Freddie Hubbard, Larry Coryell, and others.
That was quite the experience sitting a few feet away from these Jazz greats night after night for a week or so, soaking it all up! It made me want to be a Jazz musician even more!
In regards to world tours, how was the response of the public in different countries?
I’ve done two world tours with Jools Holland, and we actually travelled to many of the same countries I’d already visited on the four different cruise liners I’d worked on previously in the mid 80’s.
No matter what country we played in, the audience response was always enthusiastic and joyful.
The nature of the Jools gig is to get people up out of their seats and dancing, and there was no problem with making that happen.
We did play at The Blue Note in Tokyo and that venue is not really designed for dancing, but they still showed their full appreciation in the most sophisticated way!
One of my favourite memories of one of those world tours was when we played a sold out concert at the Sydney Opera House.
The thing which made me smile in particular was, i remembered that in 1988 I’d been working as a musician on the P&O ship “Canberra” doing a three month world cruise.
We’d visited Sydney back then, and me and some of the band I was in had gone inside the Opera House as tourists.
We started taking photos using flash photography, which apparently we weren’t supposed to, and the staff and security guys went crazy shouting at us, and literally chased us out of the building!
It was therefore very amusing for me to find myself back in the Sydney Opera House many years later on stage with Jools Holland, playing to a sold out crowd reminiscing about that embarrassing moment in that very venue from my youth!
What would you define as the biggest turning point in your career?
The biggest turning point in my career was probably my decision to move from my home town of Wolverhampton to London in 1988.
At that point, I’d already been a pro session/touring musician for six or seven years, but although I’d had an amazing time travelling all over the world on four different cruise ships, and played in many different bands, on countless gigs, and also playing on lots of TV, film & radio sessions, something was still missing for me.
I wanted to play more creative, improvised music, particularly Jazz, with like minded creative & improvising musicians, but then there were gaps in my music education which I was painfully aware of.
I’d only had formal lessons on the trombone, and was a self taught bassist, and i’d not really studied music academically, the study of harmony in particular.
I’d not gone to music college or uni, and had left school at 16, and turned pro at 17.
So, I decided I wanted to do some serious study of music, even though I was already a successful pro, working player.
I’d heard many great things about the Berklee College of music in Boston and sent away for their prospectus.
Whilst waiting for that I became very excited about the idea of living and studying in the US, especially at such a prestigious college.That all changed when I saw the costs involved!
Somewhat disappointed and disillusioned, knowing i couldn’t afford to go to Berklee, I decided the next best thing was to move permanently to London, and to seek out and study privately with prominent, well established teachers & players, and hopefully begin to establish myself all over again.
I barely knew anyone in London at the time, so it was all extremely daunting, but I knew if I wanted to learn & evolve as a musician, and play more artistically creative music, and play with better, more accomplished musicians, this is what I had to do.
And it was indeed a game changer because just under two years later in 1991 I got called to audition for the Jools Holland gig and I was offered the bass chair the same day.
A position which was previously held by none other than Pino Palladino!
And my life & career changed more than I could ever imagine!
Talking about your gear, what can you tell us about your basses, amps and pedals?
My first two bass guitars, although neither being a Fender were P bass copies, so the sound & vibe of a P bass became firmly entrenched in my ears and subconscious.
I began collecting vintage basses in the late 90’s and being able to afford real Fender or two, the P bass became my main instrument of choice.
Of course as time went on, the requirements of the Jools gig changed & evolved.
Me becoming the house bassist on Jools’ TV & Radio shows meant I needed a large array of instruments.
I fell in love with vintage Ibanez basses around seven years ago and amassed a large collection of them, and then in 2016 I was contacted by Ibanez UK to see if I wanted to try some modern day Ibanez basses and become an official endorser.
I own approx. 100 bass guitars in my collection, but my favorites are my Ibanez.
These days if I need a 4 string, I usually reach for one of my early 80’s Ibanez MC924 Musician basses, but i predominantly play my numerous Ibanez Premium BTB six string basses.
I became a fan of the six string bass when I discovered Anthony Jackson in my youth, and I find the six string bass extremely versatile and inspiring, and I can cover a lot of musical ground on it, particularly if I’m only able to take or use one bass guitar in any setting.
My stunning full size double bass was made especially for me in 2012 by world renowned UK luthier Roger Dawson just down the road from me in south east London.
I use Yamaha SLB electric upright basses. My main one is an SLB200 Ltd Edition.
These EUB’s are particularly good for touring as they are built like tanks, they feel, play & sound similar to an amplified double bass, are easy to travel with, and don’t feed back like a traditional acoustic double bass.
Two years ago I made the switch to Bergantino amplification and I couldn’t be happier!
Bergantino is a much better fit than any previous gear I’ve owned, particularly for me as a doubler on bass guitar and upright bass.
In the studio I use a Bergantino B/Amp with a HDN (High Definition Neo) 210 cab, and a HDN112 cab.
On tour with Jools I use a Bergantino Forte’ HP amp and HG412 cab. I’m also awaiting two new cabs from Jim & Holly Bergantino which are the very latest NXT cabs, (Neo X-Treme Technology) NXT210 & NXT112.
I’ve not experienced anything quite like Bergantino amplification before, it really has been a game changer for me, and I now can’t imagine ever using anything else.
The main effects I get called to use are chorus, phaser, synth and octave pedals.
I use Ultimate Ears UE11 in ear monitors and I use a Porter & Davies KT (Kinetic Transfer) platform when I tour.
I need to keep my back line at a fairly low volume and so the platform vibrates as I play helping me “feel” the bass as though I were playing through a much bigger & louder bass rig.
What is your favourite type of bass to play? 4/5/6 string?
I own 4, 5, 6, 7, and even 8 string basses, but my favourite is arguably the 6 string, tuned BEADGC low to high.
My 7 string Ibanez BTB’s (tuned BEADGCF) are fabulous instruments, but can be a little over the top for most applications.
My Ibanez 6 string BTB Premium basses are good solid working instruments and are my main go to basses.
A lot of music I play definitely requires the low B string, especially if I’m working with artists including Chaka Khan where I need to replicate synth bass lines from classic recordings, but I do like the high C string too as it means when I’m sight reading on tv, with a 6 string bass I have many more notes available under my fingers in any given position on the fingerboard than a 4 string, and so I can keep my hand in a single position for longer without taking my eyes away from the music and potentially losing my place!
How do you balance ‘life’ with music and your career as a musician?
It was a LOT easier balancing ‘life’ with music and my career when I was single! 😉
Seriously though, when I was single and didn’t have a child, music & my career were my life!
I invested most of my time, energy and finances into study, practicing, purchasing instruments and gear, and the rewards were obvious.
Lots of work, touring, in the studio on tv on radio etc.
I only got married for the first time in 2019 and had my first child (my son Oscar) in 2017, so I’m quite late to the party in that respect. I’m now 57 and of course I’m not able to be anywhere near as selfish and self indulgent regarding music & my career as I was when I was single.
Before Covid I still had to be away from home on tour, but my wife Lucy would stay at home with our son.
When I came home however, I couldn’t just go straight to my music room and start practising, transcribing or listening to music, it was then all about the family and family time!
It was a little tricky pre Covid as my wife is professional Jazz singer, so on some days it was role reversal time.
She would be going out to do a gig and I’d be the stay at home dad!
As I’ve gotten older with more responsibilities as a husband and father, it has become very difficult to find time to practise, listen to music, read a book etc.. but the way I look at it is, I’ve now had a very long, successful and varied career this past forty years, and if now is the time to take my foot off the gas a little and spend more time my beautiful new family, then so be it.
I’m very happy with that and I think I’ve paid my dues!
What advice would you give the next generations of bass players?
I’ve always felt it a little tricky giving advice to the next generation of bass players, mainly because when I was starting out in 1980/1 the music industry was very different.
And the expectations and requirements of bass players and bass playing now is very different to back then.
Having said that, it’s important to be versatile, so I would definitely say if you want to be an in demand musician, being able to play both bass guitar and upright bass is worth considering.
And from what I’ve witnessed, it won’t hurt having some keyboard skills too in case you’re called upon to play synth bass parts on an actual synth.
If you can provide backing or lead vocals even better!
I think any bassist who only plays by ear should consider learning to read music, and have a decent understanding of harmony & theory, and for the bassist who can only read and nothing else, then I would strongly urge them to acquire some improvisational skills, and be able to play by ear, busk, etc…
Being versatile and playing as many different genres of music is important too, and having the technique and playing styles to perform them accurately and authentically.
Being a fun, easy going person to be around will help a lot!
Some people are hired more for their personalities and people skills more than their musicianship.
There are so many more players looking for work now, and we live in very competitive times.
You do need to been seen & heard by as many people as possible, and social media has made this easier to do.
If you know of a prominent player in your town who gives lessons, it may be worth booking a few because you’ll be getting more than a lesson, you’ll potentially be paying for an opportunity to show what you can do to a seasoned, well connected professional player, who if they like what they see and hear, may well recommended you for gigs and sessions in the future. (Think of it as a private audition as much as a lesson)
To survive in this industry, you really need to have passion, patience, perseverance, and pride!
Another thing is repertoire. When I started out, a lot of bands I was in provide a “pad” of music, including dance band charts and pop stuff. You just turned the pages and read the parts.
Most of the time I’d never actually heard the tunes before I played them from the pad!
You rarely see pads in more commercial bands or smaller Jazz ensembles these days, so a bassist who wants to be busy & in demand really needs to have a colossal repertoire of songs from every genre in their heads to call upon at any given moment.
What short term plans do you have in these currently uncertain times?
My short term plans right now definitely involve maintaining my chops on all of my instruments, especially trombone & tuba, making sure I’m “match fit” when we can all work again.
You can take a little time off from playing a string instrument without too much compromise of one’s technique, but brass instruments are a lot less forgiving, so I’m giving particular emphasis to trombone & tuba maintenance at this time.
I continue to study, learn new tunes, transcribe challenging bass lines and solos, and generally improve all areas of my musicianship.
My wife Lucy Merrilyn is a professional Jazz singer and we’ve already recorded and uploaded some voice & double bass Jazz duet videos onto social media.
She’s now learning to play Jazz ukulele so we’ll probably upload some more videos featuring her voice & uke playing with me on double bass and tuba & trombone.
I’m also doing a lot of online teaching, and have recently recorded numerous podcast interviews available across all social platforms.
I’ve been invited to do even more of these so that’s keeping me very busy.
I’ve also been learning guitar this past year (tuned in all 4ths) so I’m particularly enjoying playing a chordal instrument with all the benefits therein.
Maybe my wife & I can do some vocal & guitar duets too!
Here ́s some generic questions to get to know you a bit more personally. Can you name a favourite:
Book-Stephen King’s 1975 horror novel ‘Salem’s Lot’.
Film- Planet of the Apes (original 1968 version)
Bass-Ibanez (4 string- Ibanez MC924 Musician bass- 6 string- Any of my Ibanez Premium BTB’s)
Concert– Earth Wind & Fire (classic lineup) at Birmingham’s NEC (National Exhibition Centre) in 1982.
Album– Seeing as it was the first time I ever heard Jaco and my life was changed forever, I’d have to go with the 1980 Weather Report album ‘Night Passage’ but with a special mention to Joni Mitchell’s 2000 concept album ‘Both Sides Now’. Such a beautiful album!
Hero– That’s a tough one… Deceased hero- Jaco Pastorius. Living hero- Anthony Jackson.